Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher
Ruby Jacinski wants a better life. Her father is dead, her mother lost her job, the grocer won’t extend their credit, and the landlord doesn’t want to wait any longer for the three months back rent they owe. But in 1941 Chicago, there aren’t many options for a fifteen-year-old girl who didn’t think to take shorthand and typing before she was forced to drop out of high school to support her family. Ruby gets a job at the meat packing plant her mother used to work at, packing pickled hog’s feet after she made the mistake of telling a girl to “move her fat, lazy tush” while working at the much easier bacon packing section. It’s hard, smelly work. Dancing is her only escape from the drudgery.
At the Young Men’s Club annual dance, Ruby meets Paulie Suelze, the local bad boy, rumored to have been kicked out of the Army for killing a private. Paulie tells Ruby she could easily make forty or fifty dollars a week, instead of the $12.25 she’s currently earning, at the Starlight Dance Academy. Despite its name, Starlight is no academy. It’s a taxi-dance hall, where men pay ten cents for each dance with a woman employed there. In many ways, Ruby loves the benefits of her new job. Although she isn’t earning the fifty dollars a week Paulie said she might, she’s making much more than she would be packing hog’s feet, plus she has the freedom of being able to go to the movies during the day and restaurants at night, heady stuff for a girl who’d never been to a restaurant before. But being a taxi-dancer isn’t a respectable occupation for a girl. Ruby must lie to her mother and most of her acquaintances about her job, claiming to be a telephone switchboard operator, and hide all traces of what she’s really doing to continue to work at Starlight.
Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher is a portrait of a determined girl who decides to take a job that most people did not approve of, who emerged from difficult situations tougher and sadly wiser. The characterizations are rich—not just Ruby, but even the minor characters are carefully drawn, realistic and flawed—and the story told in a voice that sounds so real, it’s easy to imagine that Ruby was a real person. In characters like Ozzie, who plays the trumpet in the Starlight’s house band, and Manny and Alonso, two young men from the Philippines, Fletcher also touches on the casual racism of the era in a way that seems natural and essential to the story.
This is the kind of historical novel I love best: about a strong young woman constrained by the expectations of her time and trying to overcome them, with a setting brought vividly to life. Highly, highly recommended, especially to teen and adult fans of Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light.
Visit Christine Fletcher‘s website to learn more about taxi-dancers and more. Also reviewed by And Another Book Read… (and an interview with Christine Fletcher), The Book Muncher, The Compulsive Reader, Estella’s Revenge, Pinot and Prose, and The Ravenous Reader (and guest post).